Termites (Isoptera) are the phylogenetically oldest social insects, but in scientific research they have always stood in the shadow of the social Hymenoptera. Both groups of social insects evolved complex societies independently and hence, their different ancestry provided them with different life-history preadaptations for social evolution. Termites, the ‘social cockroaches’, have a hemimetabolous mode of development and both sexes are diploid, while the social Hymenoptera belong to the holometabolous insects and have a haplodiploid mode of sex determination. Despite this apparent disparity it is interesting to ask whether termites and social Hymenoptera share common principles in their individual and social ontogenies and how these are related to the evolution of their respective social life histories. Such a comparison has, however, been much hampered by the developmental complexity of the termite caste system, as well as by an idiosyncratic terminology, which makes it difficult for non-termitologists to access the literature.
Here, we provide a conceptual guide to termite terminology based on the highly flexible caste system of the “lower termites”. We summarise what is known about ultimate causes and underlying proximate mechanisms in the evolution and maintenance of termite sociality, and we try to embed the results and their discussion into general evolutionary theory and developmental biology. Finally, we speculate about fundamental factors that might have facilitated the unique evolution of complex societies in a diploid hemimetabolous insect taxon. This review also aims at a better integration of termites into general discussions on evolutionary and developmental biology, and it shows that the ecology of termites and their astounding phenotypic plasticity have a large yet still little explored potential to provide insights into elementary evo-devo questions.